.- During his July visit to Poland for World Youth Day, it’s probable that Pope Francis will follow in the steps of his two immediate predecessors by traveling to the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, the Vatican spokesman has said.
Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, told journalists at the Jan. 27 presentation of the book “We were Jews” by 90-year-old Holocaust survivor Alberto Mieli that a summer visit to Auschwitz for the Pope is “highly probable.”
Pope Francis is scheduled to be in Poland for the July 25-31 World Youth Day – the first since the canonization of St. John Paul II in 2014.
Auschwitz, the German name for the Polish town Oswiecim where the camp is located, sits roughly 40 miles from Krakow. At least 1.1 million people died in the camp during its years of operation, 1940-1945.
The vast majority of prisoners – about 90 percent – who lost their lives at Auschwitz were Jewish men, women, and children. Other groups imprisoned and killed were Soviet POWs, gypsies, disabled persons, homosexuals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Andrzej Duda, the Polish president, met with Pope Francis in November 2015. According to Arutz Sheva, an Israeli media network, Duda said that during their encounter the Pope “asked to visit Auschwitz and to pray there for the memory of the victims.”
Should Francis go to Auschwitz, he would follow in the steps of the Polish Pope, as John Paul II was often referred to as, in 1979, as well as Benedict XVI, a German, who made his landmark visit in 2006.
Pope Francis has already imitated another great gesture of his two predecessors in visiting Rome’s major synagogue, where on Jan. 17 he called on Jews and Christians to counter the conflict, war, violence, and injustice that open deep wounds in humanity.
“The violence of man toward man is in contradiction with every religion worthy of this name, and in particular with the great monotheistic religions,” he said. “The past must serve as a lesson for us in the present and into the future,” he added, recalling the tragedy of the Shoah, or Holocaust.
St. John Paul II was the first Pope to ever cross the threshold of the synagogue. In 1986 he made history when he embraced Rome’s chief rabbi, Elio Toaf, at the synagogue’s entrance.
In an almost ironic coincidence his successor, Bavarian-born Benedict XVI, made a similar gesture, embracing Rome’s current Chief Rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, in 2010.
While Francis’ own visit to Auschwitz hasn’t been confirmed as anything more than probable, he has already proven that ecumenism and interreligious dialogue are key priorities in his pontificate.
With the Church having just observed the 50th anniversary of Nostra aetate, the Second Vatican Council's declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions, 2015 proved to be a year in which Francis made a great push in furthering Catholic-Jewish relations.
One example of a recent landmark in Jewish-Catholic relations is the Dec. 10, 2015, publication of a Vatican document that discusses the means of salvation for the Jewish people.
Another move reflecting Pope Francis’ desire to strengthen interreligious dialogue was an Oct. 26-28, 2015, conference hosted by the Vatican in honor of Nostra aetate's anniversary. Representatives of religions from around the world, including Judaism, were invited to participate.
If Pope Francis does go to Auschwitz, we can probably expect him to say something reminiscent of his frequent pleas for unity and an end to violence.
As he said in his speech at the synagogue, recalling the thousands of Roman Jews who were deported to Auschwitz in October, 1943: “their sufferings, their anguish, their tears, must never be forgotten.”
“The past must serve as a lesson for us in the present and into the future. The Shoah teaches us to always have the highest vigilance, in order to be able to intervene forcefully in defense of human dignity and peace.”